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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Fir extinguisher
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Leylandii graphic
The leylandii is the focus of thousands of disputes between warring neighbours, with homes cast into the shadow of the rapidly growing, thick evergreen trees. A new law offers a brighter future, but at a cost.

Like many couples at their stage in life, pensioners June and Harry Evans believe they have become the victims of the growing menace known as anti-social behaviour.

But where others sense intimidation in graffiti, binge-drinking or those notorious hoodies, the Evans' tormentors loom 40ft (12.2m) tall and are rooted to the ground. They are two leylandii trees.

From Wednesday, the leylandii, a fast-growing conifer variety that has been called the scourge of suburbia, will be subject to anti-social behaviour laws - something that will cheer the likes of Mr and Mrs Evans.

The tree has become a by-word for neighbourly bust-ups. In an increasingly populous island, where millions of people live but a few feet from their neighbours, yet closely guard their privacy, the leylandii's appeal is obvious.

With their ability to grow almost a metre a year, the trees quickly form into a dense thicket screening out even the most prying of neighbours.

But one man's privacy screen is another's oppressive blanket of light-sapping foliage - a conflict of opinion that can quickly escalate into arguments and ill-feeling.

A few years ago the government estimated there could be up to 17,000 unresolved neighbour disputes over high hedges. The campaign group Hedgeline says that's a "gross under-estimation".

The real extent of the problem could become clearer under the new powers, which will allow local authorities to intervene in leylandii, and other high hedge, disputes. Officials will have the power to order hedges to be cut back, to a maximum of two metres high.

Seasoned observers of such matters might feel the leylandii "issue" is as evergreen as the species itself. The first suggestion of a law to protect victims of this spirited conifer was in 1998, and it hardly seems to have gone away since.

Trimming shears

For June and Harry Evans, a change cannot come soon enough. "You look out the back and all you've got is dark," says Mrs Evans, 68.

It's my right not to be overlooked all the time - I don't see that my desire to retain privacy is anti-social
Karl Smith, leylandii grower
"I used to be able to sit outside until 8 o'clock at night at this time of year and read. Now, by 4.30, the light has gone behind the trees. It's made me so unhappy. I love my sun and I love my garden."

Others, such as Brian Singleton, have unwittingly found themselves on the wrong side of the law after taking matters into their own hands.

When his neighbours' leylandii grew too high for his liking, he dug out the trimming shears and started lopping some off the top.

"We'd got about two-thirds done when the owner noticed and called the police and we were told this was criminal damage."

The leylandii hedge runs about 40m along the back of Mr Singleton's sizeable back garden, rising to a height of six metres.

Costly venture

"It dominates our garden and we've no control over it. It's a large dark green wall. When it's overcast the effect is quite depressing."

Brian Singleton's garden
Tall story: The view from Brian Singleton's garden
Because the trees are shallow-rooted, they tend to absorb surface water, which can be bad news for shrubs near by. Anti-leylandii campaigner Clare Hinchliffe, of Hedgeline, says the expansive shade cast also harms a garden's plant life and the roots can crack walls.

"You feel helpless and it can dominate you life," she says.

However, some leylandii growers fear they are being wrongfully demonised. Karl Smith planted his leylandii hedge in his Lincolnshire home before a new development of houses next to his property.

Feeling overlooked, he allowed the hedge to grow to about five metres. But his neighbours have not been happy and he fears that at least two will invoke the new law.

"It's my right not to be overlooked all the time. I don't see that my desire to retain privacy is anti-social."

But Mrs Evans and Mr Singleton are clinging to the hope of a brighter future under the new law. It will cost, though. Councils such as Tewksbury, where Mr Singleton lives, will charge 500 to get involved (100 to over 75s), and then, even if it decides against the complainant, the money is non-returnable.

Complainant must try to resolve matter privately first
Council can order hedge to be cut to two metres
Failure to comply could mean a fine of 1,000
Applies to all evergreen hedges
The Evanses meanwhile are looking at a bill of 300.

"We're OAPs. My husband is not well. If we have to pay the money we will, but it's come out of our holiday fund," says Mrs Evans.

Solihull council says the fee is to cover a lot of potential administration and that it's cheaper than many other authorities.

But Hedgeline's Clare Hinchliffe says the fees are "deplorable".

"The government have given us a certain amount of justice with one hand," she says, "and taken it away with the other."

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